Resilience through diversity

For Oak Park Dairy, resilience through diversity has been the cornerstone of building a successful and sustainable family dairy enterprise.

Fluctuating milk prices, unpredictable feed costs and increasing environmental concerns are just some of the pressures straining the resilience of many dairy businesses. Now more than ever, taking a proactive, forward-thinking approach is key to meeting these challenges and protecting the long-term sustainability of a business.

“The volatility within all areas of the agricultural industry has increased over recent years, so developing a business that can manage risk and adapt is therefore really important,” explains Matthew Mitchem, who helps manage Oak Park Dairy, alongside his sister, Emily. “In order to future-proof the business, we have embraced diversification projects to help improve the long-term resilience of our family farm.”

Somewhat counter-intuitively for a dairy business, this family farm has drastically reduced the size of its dairy herd. However, the business has been diversifying into energy production, environmental work, development of specialist barista milk and a growing doorstep milk round. “Our family has always been very open to change and the aim is to improve the business and the land we farm, ready to hand over to the next generation,” says Emily.

Oak Park Dairy runs a herd of 100 Holstein Friesian cows milked alongside a smaller herd of 40 pedigree Jersey cows, established three years ago. This represents a stark contrast to the 500 cows the family managed until 2012.

“Our dairy herd will always be at the heart of our business but running such a large herd left us very exposed to fluctuations in feed and milk price,” says Matthew. “When herd growth and profitability started to stagnate, the family looked around for ways to bring financial stability to the business and opted to commission an anaerobic digester on the farm.

“Back in 2014, not many farmers had established anaerobic digesters, but we felt confident renewable energy production was going to become a big issue nationally and offer a consistent income stream. We knew we would have to reduce cow numbers dramatically to make land available for crops to fuel the AD plant. It was a brave choice, but it is proving to have been the right one to have made.”

The 500-kilowatt AD plant was commissioned in 2014 and is fed with a mixture of slurry, grass and maize silage grown on the farm. All the power produced goes into the National Grid, with the waste digestate used as valuable fertiliser on the farm’s crops.

While the cow slurry is a valuable fuel for the AD plant, the cows’ main job is to provide plenty of high-quality milk! And it is this milk that fuels recent diversification projects.

“The milk market is always fluctuating, and you have good and bad years,” explains Matthew. “While we really value the relationship with our milk buyer, we also take huge pride in what we do and the milk we produce. Selling direct to the public gives us the opportunity to build a relationship with our customers and hopefully educate them through social media and newsletters.  

“Since 2019 we have run a doorstep milk delivery service to households in neighbouring villages. This has been a great success and we are currently distributing about 1,500 litres of milk every week via four separate milk rounds. There is great potential in this side of the business and I’m looking forward to expanding it in the future with extra, added-value products, such as butter, yoghurt and cheese.”

To help add further value to the milk they produce, Matthew is also starting to supply to local coffee baristas. 

“By combining our Jersey and Holstein milk, we are able to create the type of milk sought after by baristas, with the optimum ratio of fat and proteins,” explains Matthew. “Before the Covid-19 outbreak, we worked with a local coffee maker/ barista who really liked the product. Once Covid restrictions are relaxed, the plan is to push forward with this side of the business too, promoting our milk to local coffee shops and cafés.”

Matthew and Emily plan to increase the size of their dairy herd, and continuing diversification will be at the heart of supporting this expansion sustainably.

“While the milking herd will always be at the heart of our family enterprise, we know how important it is to think beyond straightforward liquid milk production,” concludes Matthew. “We have never seen ourselves as ‘just’ dairy farmers and will continue to use all the farm’s assets in order to secure the long-term resilience for the farm.”

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Future Farming Programme

Farmers are currently seeing the biggest changes in agriculture for more than 50 years. As a mutual insurer, we’ve stood by South West farmers since 1903 and through our Future Farming Programme, we are helping our Members and the wider farming community navigate the changes ahead in this transformative time. Find our latest information and resources below.

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Future Farming: Environment

Matthew Mitchem has also supported the Future Farming programme by talking about adapting the Oak Park Dairy farm to increase its sustainability and biodiversity. Click the button below to find out more.

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